Michael Bloomberg is no political novice. Though the verdict on his 12 years as New York City’s mayor is, at best, mixed, there is no doubt that his political skills are as keen as his instinct for making money. As Fred Siegel and Sol Stern pointed out in a COMMENTARY article explaining why Bloomberg finally wore out his welcome at City Hall, the mayor deployed his immense fortune to not only buy votes with record campaign expenditures but also to buy political peace by bribing protest groups that might have otherwise been in the streets making his life miserable. That tactic, along with weak Democratic opponents, kept him in power even if it’s a model that no future mayor who is not also a billionaire will be able to use. But it also seems to have reinforced Bloomberg’s blind faith in the ability of money to transform a political debate. It is in this context that we should view his announcement that he will spend $50 million to build a nationwide network of groups calling for gun control.
The purpose of the effort is to copy the success of Bloomberg’s nemesis: the National Rifle Association, a group that has successfully fought off measures seeking to limit or make owning a gun more difficult. What Bloomberg wants is to inspire fear in politicians, even among liberal Democrats who otherwise agree with most of his positions on the issues, but who may stray from the party line about guns. As the New York Times reports, the former mayor thinks his money will help mobilize women to prioritize the gun issue in the same way Mothers Against Drunk Driving made it possible to pass tough laws against drunk drivers. The $50 million expenditure will not only dwarf the estimated $20 million spent by the NRA but will seek to target politicians in red and swing states who have crossed party lines to oppose both sweeping gun-control laws or more limited background check legislation.
But the NRA isn’t shaking in its boots. Gun-rights activists are used to being outspent in key legislative races, as they were last fall when Colorado legislators who voted for new gun laws were successfully recalled. But Bloomberg’s mistake isn’t only in overestimating the impact that money can have on this debate. It’s that he doesn’t understand that the NRA’s success hasn’t been so much a function of fear as it is in the passion of its supporters and the broad support their position commands among the public.
The first and perhaps greatest problem with Bloomberg’s plan is that most Americans don’t want the former mayor of New York telling them what to do or which of their constitutional rights need to be impinged upon. Though he talks about wanting to organize the “grass roots,” what he is discussing is a classic top-down operation in which a coastal elite seeks to manipulate voters in flyover country. Bloomberg’s cash was enough to co-opt various minority power brokers in New York as well as to overwhelm unimpressive ballot opponents. But it can’t convince people who support gun rights to shut up. Nor can it manufacture an equally passionate body of gun opponents where none exists.
It is true that polls often show support for some of the measures the NRA opposes. Bloomberg and other liberals believe this is proof that NRA victories in Congress are the result of a shell game in which a small minority manipulates politicians to thwart the will of the majority. But the reason why the NRA has clout on Capitol Hill is not so much the result of the intimidation that Bloomberg says he wishes to emulate as it is in the broad popularity of gun rights. As the aftermath of the December 2012 Newtown massacre showed, the national media’s efforts to demonize the NRA merely increased the number of its contributors and convinced members of the House and Senate that the NRA was actually closer to the national mood than those seeking to come up with new gun laws.
Moreover, Bloomberg’s signal that his efforts will be at the margins of the gun issue rather than on new restrictions such as revived attempt to ban assault weapons won’t fool anybody. One of the chief reasons the NRA has succeeded is because gun-rights supporters rightly believe that the ultimate goal of all gun control is to ban guns, not to merely increase the number of background checks. The fact that New York City’s laws make it onerous if not impossible for an individual to legally possess a gun only emphasizes this point.
The NRA isn’t politically bullet proof and, as it showed in its initial ham-handed responses to Newtown, it can sometimes do more damage to itself than its foes can. But as long as it is matched up against the likes of Bloomberg, it has nothing to fear.